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Complaint: Corrections official lobbied for husband’s group on state time

Sarah Walker, who resigned last week, was also under investigation for leaking confidential info.

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Sarah Walker talks to members of the Black Storytellers Alliance.
Former Minnesota Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Sarah Walker talks to members of the Black Storytellers Alliance before a performance inside the Shakopee women's prison in March.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

A top Minnesota prison official who resigned last week had been under investigation for weeks for allegedly lobbying on behalf of her husband’s nonprofit and for leaking private, internal data, according to records released Thursday night.

The redacted investigative documents were released by the Department of Corrections less than a week after former Deputy Commissioner Sarah Walker suddenly departed from her post to seek “unique opportunities” at the local and national level. The documents — emails and text messages that detail complaints about Walker’s alleged actions — were requested by lawmakers, MPR News and other news outlets.

Allegations against Walker include leaking of information to MPR News about a co-worker’s sexual assault by a corrections employee. Investigators were also looking into concerns that Walker lobbied privately for legislation related to her husband’s nonprofit while on state time.

There is no indication the inquiry was completed ahead of Walker’s resignation.

Her husband, Brockton Hunter, is an attorney and co-founder of the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit pushing a bill to create pathways to probation for veterans convicted of certain crimes and whose troubles can be traced back to trauma from their service.

Walker allegedly accidentally texted an employee “trying to save Brock’s bill,” according to the investigation, and a suggestion that Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer put in a call to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka or Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Warren Limmer. She then replied that the texts were meant for Sarah Erickson, another Capitol lobbyist.

In a statement to MPR News, the Veterans Defense Project said Walker was their lobbyist until her appointment to corrections in January. “After her appointment Sarah Erickson then registered as our lobbyist,” they wrote. Erickson could not be reached for comment.

The materials released Thursday include two forensic accounts from Walker’s work computer that showed her reviewing or editing documents connected to the veterans bill.

Walker worked for a public relations and strategy firm in St. Paul before she was appointed to corrections by Commissioner Paul Schnell. But in a statement to MPR News earlier this week, she said she dropped all of her clients, including the Veterans Defense Fund, and transferred them to other lobbyists when she started with the state.

“I did not meet with any legislators of have any communication with legislators regarding the [Veterans Defense Project],” she wrote. “All of my lobbying responsibilities for the [project ] were transferred to another lobbyist prior to my start date at the DOC.”

Walker could not be reached for comment Thursday evening, after the investigative materials were released.

Commissioner Schnell indicated in a memo he wrote in late June that a DFL lawmaker, Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, first informed him of the possible lobbying by Walker on a proposal that would benefit her husband’s charity.

“While I was aware of the existence of the program and Deputy Commissioner Walker’s husband’s involvement, I did not know her husband or his law (firm) economically benefited from the program until being told so by Rep. Lesch,” Schnell wrote on June 26.

The commissioner also wrote that Lesch, a prominent House committee chair, told Schnell he was uncomfortable working with Walker because he believed she had helped recruit an electoral challenger to him.

State law requires public officials, including deputy commissioners, to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. It also forbids employees from using confidential information, state time or property to further their private interests. State law requires top officials to also submit a statement of economic interest, which Walker has not yet completed.

“I urge the Walz administration to review the investigative data and take appropriate action to hold Ms. Walker accountable if there is evidence that Ms. Walker violated state law," Rep. Marion O'Neill, of Maple Lake, and the Republican lead on the House Corrections Division, said after the documents were released Thursday evening.

It’s not the first time concerns have been raised about Walker and her husband’s nonprofit. During a hearing on the veterans restorative justice bill earlier this year, the conversation suddenly turned to the nonprofit and how it spent state grant money during its first year of operation.

O’Neill questioned an expense rundown that showed most of the organization’s $500,000 state-funded budget in the first year had been spent on staff, including Hunter, but said he couldn’t point to any veterans they helped move through the court system. “I’m just not seeing money well spent,” she said.

Hunter said the grant helped the group establish in Minnesota, conduct working groups and produce social media posts and educational outreach videos. He said the group had an office in the same building as his private law firm.

“It’s hard to put numbers on it because the courts are not counting the number of veterans coming into the justice system at this time,” Hunter said at the time.

Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, carried a separate bill to give the Veterans Defense Project an additional $800,000 in state funding over the next two years, but he and others received an anonymous complaint questioning the group’s use of funding, as well as Walker’s role in pushing for the bill. But at the time she was still working as a lobbyist, he said.

“The complaint came anonymously, but it was pretty specific and it did have a lot of detail in it. I did have [Legislative Auditor] Jim Nobles look into it,” Lang said. “It really wasn’t cut-and-dried conflict of interest.”

But the concerns were enough for Lang to amend the bill and direct funding to a different veterans organization. “I wasn't super comfortable,” he said. “And now several months down the road, with people resigning, maybe those concerns were founded.”

The allegation involved the disclosure of sensitive information about a coworker’s sexual assault that was also being reviewed at the time of her resignation.

The woman told the investigator that she shared information about being assaulted by a corrections employee at a conference. The woman said she was caught off guard when an MPR News reporter contacted her about the incident, which resulted in criminal charges against the man involved.

The woman said she hadn’t prepared for her story to come out. She ultimately agreed to an MPR News interview about the incident and how state government was handling issues related to sexual misconduct.

But, according to the investigator’s summary, the woman felt the disclosure undercut her desire “to be regarded as a professional in the discipline of victims’ services, not as a crime victim.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Briana Bierschbach covers state government. She had been working on the story of Sarah Walker's resignation from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. When the department released the specific complaints against Walker and Bierschbach's name appeared in one of them, reporters Brian Bakst and Nina Moini took up the reporting. Bierschbach was not the subject of the complaint. In this case as in others, MPR News does not reveal the sources of information when they wish to remain confidential.